BEIJING -- Standing firm on a key disagreement, North Korea declared yesterday that it will not relinquish peaceful nuclear energy as diplomats from six nations opened another round of long-stalemated negotiations on North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
''The DPRK has the right to peaceful nuclear activity," said the chief North Korean negotiator, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, using the initials for his country's formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. ''This right is neither awarded nor needs to be approved by others," he added in a declaration to the official New China News Agency as he flew to Beijing.
Kim's remarks suggested more difficult talks lie ahead despite renewed pledges from all six governments to show flexibility and good will in working toward what they describe as the shared goal of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. The issue of peaceful nuclear energy was a major reason the last round of talks was suspended Aug. 7, after 13 days of intense but ultimately fruitless bargaining.
The 5 1/2 weeks since then were supposed to be a time of reconsideration in the six nations' capitals, particularly in Pyongyang, US officials said. But Kim's statement indicated that, from North Korea's point of view, the dispute over nuclear electricity production remains unchanged.
''If the United States tries to lay down obstacles to the DPRK's using this right, we utterly cannot accept that," he said.
Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and the chief US negotiator, said the Bush administration remains adamant that North Korea must not only get rid of its nuclear weapons program but also forgo nuclear energy production. The reason, he said in a briefing Friday in Washington, is that North Korea in the 1990s transformed a research reactor at Yongbyon into a source of weapons-grade plutonium.
''What North Korea needs to do is get out of the nuclear business. . . . [We've] been very clear about that," he said.
The chief Japanese negotiator, Kenichiro Sasae, said North Korea's position on peaceful nuclear energy would be key to determining whether the six-party talks can move forward or will remain deadlocked.
Despite Kim's declaration, Hill expressed hope that North Korea may have found a way to alter its position on that and other points since last month. ''We know precisely what the issues are," Hill said yesterday. ''I hope the DPRK delegation has also done its homework."
Chinese diplomats, who have sponsored the six-party talks since they began in August 2003, met with Hill and other delegations yesterday afternoon, beginning the open-ended discussions on a Chinese-drafted proposal for ''agreed principles" to govern North Korea's nuclear disarmament. Following a meeting of the six delegation chiefs last night, the visiting diplomats -- from Russia, Japan, the United States, and North and South Korea -- were invited to dinner by their Chinese Foreign Ministry hosts.
The search for broad principles was launched at the last round of talks as a way to find a lowest common denominator of agreement, on which more specific accords could be built later. The idea, Hill said, was to avoid the swift deadlock that had developed in three previous rounds by first finding agreement on broader goals.
But the fourth round, aside from being longer, proved little different from the first three. It bogged down in fundamental discord over peaceful nuclear energy, the timing of recognition and aid that North Korea would receive in return for giving up nuclear weapons, and North Korea's desire to address the nuclear protection it says is implicit in the alliance between the United States and South Korea.